Scrutiny of child rights referendum is absent


The media’s uncritical approval of the children’s referendum is discouraging dissent, writes JOHN WATERS

IMAGINE THAT, back in the 1950s, there had been a referendum about giving the Catholic Church increased power over children in its charge.

Imagine it had been argued that the prevailing situation tied the hands of those operating orphanages and such institutions and, by virtue of the constitutionally protected rights of the parents from whom children had been taken, prevented the adequate care of those children in care.

What, given all we understand about the mentalities and power dynamics of that time, do we imagine the outcome might have been?

It is likely that such an amendment would have been passed, with a handful of public figures opposing: Noel Browne, Jack McQuillan, James Dillon, Dr Cyril Daly, Frank Crummey and perhaps one or two others.

From what we know about its general disposition back then, we can intelligently speculate that the media, in general, would have enthusiastically supported such an amendment – perhaps providing tokenistic space to dissenters but insisting voters do what was necessary for the “protection” of children.

Looking back at such an episode now, it’s likely that we would find in it much added vindication for our condescension towards the past, and our certainty that former times were dogged by some mysterious myopia.

It is probable that we would have especially harsh words to say about a media that appeared unmindful of any duty to investigate what was happening behind the closed doors of State institutions in which children were being held.

Yet, today, we appear indifferent to danger signals in the present, to a degree that might cause a man from Mars to ask us what, fundamentally, we think is different.

In the “children’s rights” referendum now under way, politicians are unanimous that the amendment is a good thing, and media coverage overwhelmingly implies that there is no reasonable cause to oppose it.

The persistent reiteration of the alleged intention behind the amendment – “to protect children” – blandly trumps all arguments and discourages potential dissenters from volunteering themselves as enemies of the young.

Yet, the main effect of this amendment will not be to extend negotiable rights to children. In the vast majority of cases, the supposed “children’s rights” to be exercised courtesy of a successfully passed amendment would be pursued by State agents, purportedly on behalf of particular children who lacked the maturity or capacity to invoke their own alleged constitutional rights.

In all foreseeable instances, such contests would be conducted against parents.

What, therefore, might future generations be anticipated to say about what we are engaged in now?

Looking backwards at our discussion, will our children’s children be satisfied that we turned over every stone to ensure a safe and just society for them and their children? Are they likely to be impressed by reports of platitudinous speeches and bland assertions?

What, for example, would they make of our failure to address the secrecy of the judicial processes which are in place for dealing with child-related disputes?

In the event of some dreadful calamity arising in the interim from our family court or childcare systems – say a major scandal about the forcible adoption of children on insufficient grounds – might

not the citizens of 2050 have reason to scratch their heads at the idea of voters in 2012 giving the blind nod to a constitutional provision that extended virtually unlimited powers to forces

which already offered close to zero public accountability, conducted all their activities behind closed doors and kept minimal records of what was decided and done?

At the very least, might not our children’s children be anticipated to ask what journalists in 2012 – especially those clamouring for the passage of the amendment – had had to say about rumours of abuses and perversions of justice that had long emanated from family courts?

Might they not be expected to trawl through the newspaper archives in search of evidence of campaigns to refine or abolish the in camera rule, which imposed a cloak of secrecy on the State’s handling of some of the most fragile and intimate matters concerning the lives of its citizens?

Such future citizens, probing into the context of the present referendum, will encounter very little basis to acquit the Ireland of 2012.

By then, it is probable that voices will have emerged to speak of the injustices inflicted by the courts and institutions of what will then seem like the black-and-white past.

Undoubtedly, some grown-up children will by then be accusing the State of depriving them of the care and society of a parent, of having had them forcibly adopted, of casting them into foster care when other options were available.

Our children’s children will reasonably ask: why did Irish society turn its back on those who raised questions about what was happening in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

Why, in 2012, did the electorate evince more interest in declaring its pious commitment to the “welfare of children” than demanding transparency and verifiability in the implementation of public policy?

Most of us who will vote next month will by then not be around to defend ourselves, but will have to submit to the judgment of history, which we have reason to expect will be stern indeed.

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